6 Biggest Games Looming on Chicago Bulls' Schedule

William Smith@@BSmith102688Correspondent IDecember 20, 2012

6 Biggest Games Looming on Chicago Bulls' Schedule

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    After starting the season 6-7, the Chicago Bulls have won eight of their past 11 games to get to 14-10 and atop the Central Division of the Eastern Conference. However, the Bulls still have big games looming on their schedule which will determine if they have staying power in the playoff hunt in the conference.

    Since a disheartening home loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 26 in which the Bulls blew a 27-point lead and lost 93-92, the Bulls have been on a roll behind the strong play of Joakim Noah.

    In December, Noah is averaging 13.9 PPG to go along with 11.9 RPG and 5.2 APG, playing like an All-Star caliber center. Noah had a 30 point, 23 rebound performance in a Dec. 7 win over Detroit, and just posted a triple-double in the Bulls' most recent win over Boston.

    The Bulls are not an elite basketball team with Derrick Rose still on the mend, but they are finding ways to win. 

    Head coach Tom Thibodeau has restored his team's identity on the defensive side of the ball, as the Bulls have only surrendered more than 90 points twice in their last 11 games.

    While Rose's return still remains uncertain, the Bulls will have plenty of tough tests on their schedule as well as games they can't overlook.  Let's take a look at the biggest games through the end of January: 

Dec. 25-Rockets at Bulls

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    This Christmas Day game will be a battle of strength versus strength. The Bulls are second in the NBA in scoring defense at 90.3 PPG, while the Rockets are third in the league in scoring at 104.0 PPG. 

    Something's got to give. Even though James Harden (25.1 PPG), Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik present a nice young core, the Rockets are still only a game above .500 because they can't stop anybody (103.7 PPG allowed to opponents).

    The Bulls will have their hands full stopping a dynamic offense, but they also may be able to impose their will against a porous defense.

Jan. 4-Bulls at Heat

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    Usually a rivalry takes many years to develop, with both teams battling each other in the playoffs on several occasions. It also takes a little animosity between the two teams.

    The Bulls and Miami Heat may not have all the pieces essential to a great rivalry at this time, but both fan bases want it badly in this series. Since the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, when the Heat beat the Bulls to make it to the NBA Finals, this matchup has been one of the best in the sport.

    The teams split the season series 2-2 last year and did not meet in the playoffs, but this matchup will stay have a lot of intensity and passion. 

    The players may downplay it as just another regular season game among the 82-game schedule, but fans know better that this isn't the case. The Bulls will almost certainly be without the services of Rose, but they knocked off the Heat last season on Mar. 24 behind an incredible performance by John Lucas III.

    So while it appears the Heat are better on paper, the Bulls can make a statement with a win.

Jan. 9-Bucks at Bulls

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    These two teams, along with the Indiana Pacers, will duke it out for Central Division supremacy. Both teams won on the other's home court, with the epic Bucks comeback on Nov. 26 in Chicago being the most recent meeting.

    This time around, don't think the Bulls will have forgotten what they let happen last time. 

    Milwaukee has the one of the best backcourts in the league with Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, who combine for 36.6 points per contest. While they have lacked consistency from their bigs, Samuel Dalembert and Larry Sanders have shown they can perform well if called upon. 

    This could be a lower-scoring contest as both teams are in the bottom half of the league in scoring offense. The Bulls know they need a measure of revenge from the late November debacle.

Jan. 14-Hawks at Bulls

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    This is a big game for the Bulls in what could be a preview of a first-round playoff matchup. Neither team is elite and could very easily meet in the playoffs as No. 4 and No. 5 seeds.

    The Bulls took the season series 3-1 from the Hawks last year, but expect this to be a tough game between two solid teams jockeying for position in the Eastern Conference.

    Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich will be facing off with his former team who he spent parts of two seasons with after spending seven seasons with the Bulls and part of a season with the Washington Wizards. It'll be beneficial to have the veteran presence of Captain Kirk, who knows the tendencies of his former teammates and will be able to share that information with his fellow Bulls.

    It's unlikely D-Rose will be available for this game, so the Bulls will have to beat the Hawks without him. In the four matchups last year, Rose led the team in scoring (20.3 PPG) playing in three games, while Luol Deng played in all four and scored 15.3 PPG.

    Deng will have to be the very productive for the Bulls to pick up a win in this game against a well-balanced Atlanta that has five players averaging in double-figures scoring.

Jan. 18-Bulls at Celtics

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    The teams have split their first two matchups of the 2012-13 season, with the Bulls winning the most recent matchup 100-89 behind Noah's triple-double.

    Bulls and Celtics games are always intense and have had their fair share of drama in the past, regular season and postseason.

    A key matchup will be Joakim Noah against Kevin Garnett, As we know, Noah isn't exactly a fan of KG

    It wouldn't be surprising to see some technical fouls and a very physical game that could come down to free throws. In the last meeting, Chicago connected on 21-of-24 attempts from the foul line and shot 50 percent from the field.

    The Bulls need to pick up a key win in this one to prove they can win road games against playoff-caliber teams.

Jan. 21-Lakers at Bulls

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    These two teams last met in the season opener on Christmas Day, when the Bulls overcame an 11-point deficit in the final 3:47 to pull out an 88-87 win on a Derrick Rose jumper in the closing seconds.

    This is not the same Lakers team, with the additions of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. However, the team many expected to dominate the NBA has not done so because of poor play and injuries. The Lakers are 12-14 and winners of three straight, so they may be turning the corner and could be riding a hot streak coming into this matchup.

    Even though Rose's return date is uncertain, I don't think he'll be suited up for this one or any game until he is truly 100 percent.

    That doesn't mean the Bulls can't win this game without him. They have proven the last two seasons they can beat quality opponents without their superstar. Kobe Bryant and company will be tough, but the Thibodeau will have his team prepared to stop a Lakers offense that is currently averaging 102.0 PPG.

    The most intriguing matchup is the Bulls' Joakim Noah going up against the Lakers' Dwight Howard. Howard has over 30 pounds on Noah, but that doesn't mean he will automatically impose his will.